There is an old stone tower deep in the Normandy Cotentin countryside that could be considered unremarkable. Although its rooms are an unusual combination of chapel below and dovecote above, it is a forlorn truth that this is not the sort of building people drive miles out of their way to see.
But we did. Because this tower is all that is left of the home of Giles Picot, Sire de Gouberville, and a doorway into 16th century Normandy.
The old tower at Mesnil-au-Val had been slumbering discretely for hundreds of years when in 1867 Father Tollemer made an extraordinary discovery, while exploring the archives of the château in Saint-Pierre-Église, not 20km away. There on a shelf, or a desk, he saw `a leather-bound roll of papers that looked as though it had been undisturbed for a considerable amount of time. An amateur historian, Father Tollemer’s curiosity was piqued. He unrolled the papers and saw almost indecipherable writing but a legible date. He knew at once he was holding something uniquely precious.
The first page began with the following lines:
Payments and receipts made by me Gilles de Gouberville, from the 25 day of March 1553 with notes upon all matters which have arisen since that date, touching my own affairs as well as those of other people, all of which will be found, every day, month and year as hereafter appears.
Simple household account from so long ago would be interesting enough. These pages contained considerably more. It was a ‘livre de raison’, a style of household accounting book long out of fashion that included family notes and snippets of news alongside the balance sheets.
The Livre de Raison of Giles de Gouberville
This is no chronicle of kings and battles, those historic headliners, but the life of a country squire in Normandy. Traditionally ‘livre de raison’ were handed down to heirs and continued by the head of the household. Fortunately for us and for Father Tollemer, Gilles de Gouberville was an assiduous writer and a very interesting man.
When Father Tollemer asked the owner M. Raoul de La Goniviere for permission to study the papers M. de La Goniviere mentioned another role of documents. Father Tollemer recalled “My happiness was great, I assure you, Then I noticed that it was the work of the same writer… ”
Father Tollemer spent the next years of his life deciphering the old language, hearing through centuries the voice of a long forgotten man. In 1886 a third, earlier manuscript was found, started in 1549 when Gilles was 27. The livres de raison now covered 13 years Gilles de Gouberville’s life.
A fine country family
Gilles was head of the Picot family. His father married a Gouberville, adding their name to his own. Gilles’ forebears accompanied the Conqueror on his first visit to England in 1066 and at least one relative was killed while losing the battle of Agincourt. When Gilles’ father died in 1544 he inherited land at Gouberville, and le Mesnil-au-Val which he made his home. He also inherited his father’s role as ‘Le maître des eaux et forêts‘ lieutenant of waters and forests, for the viscount of Valognes.
A little look at 16th century life, for a Norman squire
Sire Gilles wrote about his family (he never married but fathered four daughters and looked after them all), friendships with fellow squires across the county. Farming, hunting, grudges and justice, Food wine and cider, medicine, manners and the early years of the religious wars.
The livres de raison reveal a young, educated and responsible man who is healthy and strong. He is an excellent horseman regularly riding hundreds of miles across Normandy on business and to visit friends. He is skilled with a sword, crossbow and arquebuse (long gun). But this is not a grand lord observing his lands from afar. The manor was a community that Gilles watched over closely, involving himself in everything from helping during a harvest to watching over his bees in what he called his ‘jardin à mouche’ garden of flies.
Honey was a useful source of income and their wax was made into candles to light his home. We know that when it rained he covered the hives in earthenware pans made for the job by the potter at Saulsemesnil. In winter they were wrapped against the cold. The strained honey was stored in pots made by the potter at Brix. He was a skilled apiarist.
10 October 1562 – A servant came from Michael Donville to ask me to let him have some honey for his mistress, who is about to be confined. He told me that he had not been able to find a single drop anywhere. I gave him a pot of last year’s honey. The honey was as firm as a rock.
The honey and produce from his farms was sold in weekly markets; grain on Mondays in Cherbourg, on Wednesday and Saturday to Saint-Pierre-Eglise. Livestock were sent on Saturdays to Montebourg. Of course he attended all the country fairs; Sainte Genevieve on 3 January, Saint Georges at Les Pieux on 24 April, Saint Naser, Sainte Jehan and Saint Paul fairs in June… every month there was at least one event, frequently many more.
A man for all seasons
Gilles had a particular passion for nurturing varieties of apple trees and was a renowned cider maker and a distiller. His documents are the first on record to mention making apple brandy ‘eau-de-vie’ but the process was clearly well established;
28 July 1554 – Maistre Pierre Tende, apothecary at Volognes, lent me a vessel in which he makes his eau-de-vie.
4 September 1554 – I gave 15 sols to Michelet, the coppersmith for two days’ work mending the vessel for making the eau-de-vie.
Gilles took his alcohol seriously, and the snippet below reveals him a popular, sociable fellow;
19 February 1553 – I stopped at La Robine’s [an inn in Cherbourg]. She declared that she would give me a pint of vin de la palme and went upstairs to fetch it. I called in Clement Liés, Malesart, Lapommeraye and Gilles Auvré whom I saw passing in the street.
Carousing with corsairs
In that busy port popular with corsairs (Captain Malesart was a renowned privateer) a gentleman would find exotic luxuries from an expanding world. Although unlawful, the Norman privateers were a healthy source of trade. Gilles cheerfully sold his tallest, straightest trees to make masts for their ships.
Gilles joined Captain Malesart on an adventures in 1558. Malesart had recently raided the English held island of Aurigny (Alderney) just 42km west from Cherbourg and sailed back with a cargo full of English cows. As Katherine Fedden says in her book about Gilles, ‘the expedition was too successful not to be repeated’…
They set sail from Cherbourg just after midnight landing in Aurigny at daybreak. He recorded in the livres:
‘All the company remained on the island and made great cheer. I dined with Captain Malesart and supped and slept with the Sire de Sideville. All day long, we walked about the island to see the forts. As I had been ill on the sea, I slept with Denneville in the fort all the morning, till dinner. Monday, after breakfast, we embarked in Clement Liés’ boat with the Sire de Désart, a young Italian named Master Anthony, Symonnet [Gilles’ half brother], Thomas Drouet, and landed at Saint-Germain. Took horses to go the Manor of Saint-Naser and from there took other horses to come home’.
The lack of islander resistance suggests the British Navy were nowhere about. Did the locals simply hide while the invaders slept in their homes?
Although their looting was illegal, a swift visit to Manor Saint Naser, home to the Lieutenant of the Admiral, on their return suggests officials were more than happy to turn a blind eye to activities that may benefit France.
Gilles was not just friends with the corsairs. His own godson and namesake Gilles le Marchant, Sire de Raffoville was one of the most arrogant and fearless corsairs to sail the high seas.
11 February 1556 – Symonnet went to the house of my godson de Raffoville and brought me the news that he is back from sea, where he has been for a month, and that he has taken prizes valued at 200,000 ducats and that we will be here to see me tomorrow.’
28 May 1557 – At three o’clock Julian and Jacques Feuillye, who went to Gouberville, arrived each one with a horse and cart, each holding 90 bushels of wheat that they got at Barfleur from de Raffoville’s prize’
It’s not stated, but there is a strong suspicion Gilles was one of de Raffoville’s investors… Better to be a friend than foe of de Raffoville who was widely feared as a lawless bandit and a bully, unlike his godfather. A peasant thought to have stolen cattle from de Raffoville’s cohorts was tortured by de Raffoville and burnt alive in his oven. Unsurprisingly de Raffoville came to a bloody end.
A life well lived
This adventure was an unusual interlude for Gilles whose life was governed by the seasons, by business and the affection of family and friends. The livre de raison is not just a record, it is a labour of love, revealing a life well lived.
Towards the end of the livres de raison, the political world was changing around him. Religious zealotry was growing and a golden age of freedom, of exploring new worlds, and of education was coming to an end. The decades long Wars of Religion were beginning. The livres de raison reflect the growing troubles as the Cotentin region was violently divided by Protestant and Catholic.
But the last entry to survive takes us back to life at the manor and the smaller things that bring these old pages alive.
24 Mary 1563 – I have not stirred from here. Cantepyre and Chandeleur came from Briquebec, Chandeleur supped here. I was all day at the Clos-de-Ventes where they were sowing. Symonnet off hunting in the morning and got a hare; his greyhound hurt one of its forepaws badly. The same day I returned XXIIII sols VI deniers to Centepyre… Guillemin La Canu and Talbourdin supped and slept here on the way back from the fair de la Fleurye at Montebourg.
Gilles Picot, squire of Gouberville, Le Mesnil-au-Val and Russy, was born in 1521 and died on 7 March 1578. He is buried in the churchyard of Le Mesnil-au-Val. No-one knows quite where, but his life, that will not be forgotten.
The manor house stayed in the family (who became Barville, by marriage) for many years but was destroyed by fire in 1886. Only the tower from his time remains, the few out-buildings have been modified or reconstructed.
Restoring the tower is not a new activity. Gilles says on 21 June 1560; Thomas Drouet and Gratian went to Yvetot for limestone in order to repair the pillars of the dovecote… Gilles Mesge brought lime for 24 sols.’
Classified as a historic monument in 1987, this unassuming tower is made from sandstone blocks with windows outlined in Yvetot-Bocage limestone. The octagonal chapel sits on a square base. Above, the round topped dovecote is reached via a narrow spiral staircase and once homed many hundreds of birds. The roof is covered with schist tiles and has been restored using traditional methods. Originally it was open to the sky at the centre.
Walk in the steps of Gilles de Gouberville
The tower is open to the public during the “Journées du Patrimoine” which are generally held on the third weekend of September.
A thank you
For our visit we were met by the very charming Anne and Claude Bonnet who told us about Gilles, about restoring the tower and a little of Normandy life long ago. Our fascinating visit included a perilous climb up the old spiral staircase and a dove’s eye view of the old colombier.
Huge thanks to Anne and Claude Bonnet owners of the Tour de Barville and founder of the Gilles de Gouberville committee for making us so welcome.
The very informative website of the Comité Gilles de Gouberville (Fr & Eng).
Manor life in old France by Katharine Fedden. A sometimes personal and always readable book about the Journal (in English) published by Columbia University Press in 1933 (copies turn up on Ebay). This book quotes heavily from the livres de raison and greatly informed this post.
The three livres de raison are held in private collections.
Article on the Journal of Sire de Gouberville 1892, based on the manuscript by Abbe Tollemer published by the Societe des Antiquaries de Normandie in 1892
Follow @gouberville for a daily tweet from Gilles’ journal (Fr.).